The Petrified Novelist (1935)
The Petrified Novelist
Leslie Howard, in “The Petrified Forest” Once More Certifies to the Living Theater That He Is the Most Winning and Most Adaptable Actor of These Times
Leslie Howard’s temporary release from the bondage of Hollywood is accomplished in “The Petrified Forest,” an attractive acting-piece in which the most winning actor of his time returns to Broadway undamaged by toil in the salt-mines of the cinema capital. This time he performs in a tarantula-strewn combination lunch-room and filling-station nestled squalidly in an Eastern corner of the Arizona Desert. Here the white ties and tail-coats of Mr. Howard’s customary drawing-rooms are discarded for hiking-boots, a knapsack, and penury.
A wistful defeatist in the role, thumbing his way across the Continent, purposeless, with none to tie him or stay him, he finds romance and ruin in the tawdry shack which Robert Sherwood has provided for him and a distinguished acting company.
• Likable Preachment
The new play for Mr. Howard is a frequently strange, but always likable, preachment, with Mr. Howard and half-a-dozen competents taking the place of Mr. Sherwood in making the observations which tuck the jitters of this era into their proper pigeon-holes. Mr. Howard, as Alan Squier, a New England-born novelist, comes upon the sad realization that he is no major artist, boxes up religion, morality, ethics, romance, the American Legion, machine-gun-swinging killers, even thievery and mass murder—and, with the expert help of the others in the cast, does that boxing up tidily and neatly.
“The Petrified Forest” is a smooth and glossy entertainment, with but one minute and conspicuously short-lived lapse from perfection. Even by now that may have been corrected, for the First Night audience reaction to it was such as to signal its flawing presence. There would be no point in elaborating on the one false scene, and it scarcely is important enough to mar enjoyment of the play as a whole.
Mr. Sherwood’s principal figurines are the defeated novelist, a frustrated desertmaid, an inarticulate man-killer, a sort of Dillinger of the waste-lands, and a garrulous old fellow who pioneered the desert fifty-six years earlier. These are his mouthpieces, and through them he says a few things about three generations which ought long ago to have been said as eloquently and passionately.
The three are those who were young during the World War, those who are young to-day, and the infants of to-day who will be young adults to-morrow. Each of these mouthpieces contributes forcefully to the sum of Mr. Sherwood’s penetrating, often acidulous, observations and each, in doing it, brings forth from the actor in the role a high level of performance.
• Studied Precision
Squier comes upon the Black Mesa Bar B-Q late in the afternoon. Studiedly, with infinite precision, he orders a meal and sits to it. The old desert-rat am^uses him with tales of the olden day when Billy the Kid shot from the hip and from whim, and when men had to be hardy. His respect for pistolbearing killers still is fresh and lively, and has just been transferred to an Oklahoma desperado, Duke Mantee, an icy murderer for whose release from a jail six had been slain that day by the Duke’s aids. The old man goes off mumbling and Gabrielle, his
granddaughter, sees to serving the meal. She is a strange child, daughter of an American
soldier and a French woman. Her mother had not been able to abide the desert, and had returned to France. Her heritage keeps calling her away, and there is no possible escape for her.
Squier philosophizes with her, encourages her, and she falls in love with him. An impulsive, profane youngster, used to men’s ways and talk, she bluntly offers herself, and he gently declines. Soon a tourist couple come by, he confesses inability to pay for his supper, she gives him a dollar, and arranges for him to ride with them on to Phoenix. In a few minutes he is back.
Mantee and his men have commandeered the car and they all come in to the shack. Thenceforward, to an ending it would be less than gracious to describe, the play becomes a mixture of thoughtful contemplation of to-day’s evils and melodrama, with the latter rising to flood for the last few minutes of the action.
The first act is smooth and alluring, and more than ordinarily comic. The second, suddenly, is exciting, filled with tension, and makes its points with a thump.
It has been held, and unfairly, against Mr. Howard that his especial trick in the theater was that of remaining virtually motionless while the others in his companies acted themselves to pieces around him. This, it has been said, naturally focused attention, and, of course, approval, on him. It is true that he is a master of understatement in performance, that others do act themselves to pieces around him, but in “The Petrified Forest” he is forced to the extremity of his talents by a shrewdly chosen company.
And when the play ends, and he still is the superior in acting, it is further glowing tribute to his great powers.
• Poem of Understatement
Humphrey Bogart’s portrait of Duke Mantee, the nerveless killer, is a poem of understatement as compared with Mr. Howard’s performance. Mr. Bogart has few lines, little action, but the picture of that inarticulate killer, a pistol snuggled under each arm, a submachine-gun on his lap, quietly, grimly holding his end of the conversation with an occasional “I wouldn’t know, pal,” is one of the gripping events in the theater.
Miss Peggy Conklin makes Gabrielle so vivid and real and enchanting that, even tho she no longer needs it, she once more is labeled among the elect of the drama’s young women.
Charles Dow Clark, an old actor not seen so often any more, takes the role of Gramp, the desert-rat, in his two fine old hands and goes away with it, making the young players
follow him. He captivated the First Night audience instantly and remained master of his part through the whole performance.
It is the ending that is going to break matinee hearts, an ending in which Mantee and Squier, secure at violently opposed ends of the social order, arrive at a pact which gives solution to the play, and meaning to the title.
Arthur Hopkins has staged the production with deep understanding and skill, and it may be looked upon as one of the gifts of the season.
(The Literary Digest, January 1935)